Escaped slaves fought on the British side, which promised to free them, during the American war for independence for white men. But nobody liked to talk about that much after the French won the war, although — come to think of it — nobody much likes to talk about the French winning the war, or for that matter about the big losers being, not the British but the Native Americans.
White folks weren’t eager to arm slaves, although an NRA-type genius just said on U.S. televisions this week that if slaves had only been armed they wouldn’t have been slaves. The militias famously protected by the Second Amendment included, perhaps primarily, white militias aimed at crushing slave rebellions. Escaped slaves fought for the Union in the Civil War, which may not have been an insignificant factor in Lincoln’s decision to announce their freedom.
The massacring of Native Americans conditioned black troops as well as white for the brutalities they would inflict in the name of freedom and democracy on the Philippines and Cuba. Imperial wars abroad brought with them huge surges of violence at home. During the days in which the United States liberated Filipinos and Cubans from their lives, thousands of lynchings and hundreds of riots brought freedom and liberty to African Americans at home. While Haitians were occupied, blacks were attacked in Harlem and Alabama.
African Americans were included in the U.S. military during World War II, in segregated units, and often in non-combat units. The pretense was that they couldn’t fight, never had, never would. And yet, just as they had before, many did — with less training, less equipment, and in riskier positions. And many came to grasp what it all meant. A jim crow nation that locked up Japanese Americans and rioted against blacks and Mexicans, slaughtered innocent civilians for imperial gain in the name of opposing imperialism. “Just carve on my tombstone,” said an African American soldier in 1942, “here lies a black man who died fighting a yellow man for the protection of the white man.”
The draft was segregated. The military was segregated. Blacks were largely confined to the support labor that is now hired out to contractors. When FDR was finally pushed to support blacks’ participation in the army, he insisted that they make up no more than 10 percent and be kept in segregated units. And yet, when African American soldiers in World War II weren’t facing the Germans or the Japanese, they were still at great risk of violent assault by white U.S. soldiers, not to mention the abuses they would face back home after their “service.” In Guam, U.S. commanders allowed white troops to prepare for assaults on Japanese troops by abusing African American sailors, including by tossing live grenades at them.
African Americans launched a Double Victory Campaign, whose symbol was two V for victory signs, desiring as they did a victory over fascism abroad and at home. Some saw through the military madness, understood the connection between violence abroad and at home, and refused to enlist — or got themselves declared mentally unfit, as Malcolm X did. Black soldiers resisted, struck, and mutinied. In April 1945, sixty black officers defied a ban on their use of an officers’ club and were arrested. Another group defied the ban, and they were arrested. And then another.
Before he integrated baseball, Jackie Robinson refused to move to the back of a bus on Fort Hood.
A budding movement could be recognized that was also forming within U.S. prisons where black and white conscientious objectors were confronting domestic injustice in new ways.
As black and white troops prepared to return from France, black soldiers had their guns confiscated, while white soldiers guarding German prisoners kept theirs and turned them on the African American troops as well. Lest you imagine this the hypocrisy of a few bad apples who failed to grasp the great moral purpose of the war, let’s not forget that as the victors put the Nazis on trial for crimes including human experimentation, the United States was giving syphilis to Guatemalans to see what would happen, just as it had long been and would long continue studying (and not treating) African Americans with syphilis in Alabama. In fact, German and Italian troops being held prisoners of war helped white U.S. troops enforce segregation. And Nazi war criminals found an eager employer in the Pentagon. Black veterans of World War II were shot and lynched in such numbers in 1946 that a Chicago Defender columnist wrote that “the Negro press still reads like war.”
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